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Inside Politics

Networks balk at Bush-Kerry debate agreement

Several indicate they will not be bound by limits on cameras
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(CNN) -- Although the Bush and Kerry camps have meticulously crafted an agreement on the rules for this year's presidential debates, the television networks broadcasting them refuse to go along with the plans.

Specifically, the networks object to provisions in the agreement that place limits on their cameras, including prohibitions on shots of one candidate while the other is answering questions. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the Debates)

"Because of journalistic standards, we're not going to follow outside restrictions," said Paul Schur, a spokesman for Fox News, which will operate the pool camera for the first debate Thursday in Miami, Florida.

"This is a news pool, and we are not subject to agreements between candidates," NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin said. "We will use pictures as we see fit."

CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said the network "reserves the right to make our own decisions about coverage during the debate, just as we always have."

ABC News and CBS News are also objecting to the limits, with a CBS spokeswoman insisting that "we will utilize any shots the pool makes available."

Also, at least two of the television journalists chosen to moderate the debates -- ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS's Bob Schieffer -- have not signed the agreement on ground rules hammered out between the two campaigns, according to their networks.

The other two moderators are Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer, both of PBS, which has not yet commented.

Under terms of the agreement reached last week between the Bush and Kerry campaigns after lengthy negotiations, moderators who refuse to sign the document can be replaced.

The 32-page agreement sets out the rules for the debates with great specificity, down to details such as the temperature of the hall, what kind of paper can be used to take notes and who can stand in the wings. (Stakes high heading into debates)

Monday, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the independent group that plays host to the debates, said it would agree to enforce the rules reached in the agreement between the Bush and Kerry campaigns and that there "will be no departure from the terms" unless there is "prior consultation with, and approval by, the appropriate campaign representatives."

However, the commission did not formally sign the agreement, and its co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf, told The New York Times that the restrictions on what the networks can show are unenforceable.

"We don't control the feed, so we don't know what the networks are going to show," said Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "That's not within our purview."

The New York Times also reported that the commission may balk at a provision in the agreement setting out the make-up of the audience for the town hall debate between Bush and Kerry on October 8 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Campaigns agree to 3 presidential debates)

The campaigns agreed that the audience would be divided between people leaning toward Bush and those leaning toward Kerry. The debate commission wants the hall full of undecided voters in neither camp.

Under terms of their agreement, either the Bush or Kerry campaigns could opt out of the debates, or seek another sponsor, if the commission does not sign on to their terms. There is no indication either camp is contemplating such a move.

The document does not address what might happen if the television networks refuse to abide by the rules.

Responding to the media's recalcitrance, Kerry campaign spokeswoman Christine Anderson said "every time you have something like this, there are going to be small details to be worked out. They are being worked out."

The Bush campaign declined to comment directly on the networks' objections. However, spokesman Scott Stanzel described the president's camp as "looking forward to all of the debates."

"We are pleased the commission said they would follow the terms of the agreement of the campaigns," he said.

The debate commission has not commented on the media's objections to the rules.

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